Lower Lion Canyon, Sierra Madre Mountains

JackSquaring off with the sun in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains in 96 degree heat.

I like to see it for myself. When looking at a map of the forest I want to know what each particular attraction noted thereon looks like in person.

I also like to get out and see the lesser visited locations, those places without trails, the cartographically unlabeled, the ignored, places with little if any notable features, and other backcountry nooks only the few of the few may rarely venture to lay eyes upon, because, to the general population, there isn’t anything notable there, and even among avid hikers, there’s not enough there to warrant the strenuous and uncomfortable hike required to reach such remote off-trail places.

When Stillman mentioned an interest in lower Lion Canyon I needed neither further explanation nor incentive. (DavidStillman.blogspot.com) I like to clock my time crawling around in backcountry bushes. I need little excuse.

Sierra Madre Mountains Santa Barbara CountyNorth slope of Sierra Madre Mountains below Montgomery Potrero.

It’s mid-summer. A severe drought, worst dry spell in over 120 years, intensifies the often brutal and inhospitable, already desert-like Cuyama foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Last year 2.32 inches of rain fell here, this year a measly 1.71 inches.

An occasional, fleeting puff of breeze floats by, taunting us with refreshment before vanishing, but mostly we trudge through a suffocating stillness. Distance distorted by heat shimmer. The south facing slopes mostly devoid of vegetation. Little shade other than the crosshatched strands of shadow cast from the nearly bare branches of chaparral. Powdery, desiccated soil erupts in puffs of fine particulate like tiny gunshots exploding from under our heels with each step. Sweaty skin a magnet for dust, my face is coated in the grit, my nostrils collecting it, my moist eyeballs rolling in it, grinding and irritated.

I press on ignoring it all, lost in thought, traversing the trailless terrain, up over ridges, down into dry ravines and back up. Stillman always a faster hiker, I follow his footsteps meandering through the scrub over the bajadas, disappearing across the exposures of caliche and reappearing in the alluvium, his footprints the only trace of other humans, I seemingly hike alone.

My motivation and interest to set out on foot and see my backyard at large is driven by passion, but sometimes it may seem fueled more by pathology. My body often suffers for my mind’s compulsion to force it to wander and roam the local weed patches, sometimes in grueling conditions.

Cuyama Valley Lion Canyon Caliente RangeLooking over the Sierra Madre foothills toward Cuyama Valley with the Caliente Range in the distance. The mouth of Lion Canyon runs out of the lower right hand corner of the frame toward Lower Lion Spring. Note the golden faced south facing slopes bare of vegetation.

As the day progressed, the sun rising higher in the sky, the sparsely vegetated earth absorbing and radiating ever greater amounts of heat, and as we covered further distance and burned more energy roaming off-trail, the temperature became a greater factor in the day’s equation.

It is not easy to cool a body in conditions like these once it’s overheated. These conditions can be deadly.

Sierra Madre Mountains David Stillman hiking CuyamaSpeck in the scrub, Stillman ranging off-trail on the way to Lion Canyon. The rock outcrop seen in the distance frame left is the same one shown in the photo below.

Lion Canyon Sierra Madre Mountains CuyamaOverlooking lower Lion Canyon creek, back from whence we came atop the creamy white-faced slope in the distance, which Stillman is shown crossing the top of in the previous photo.

We entered into a grassy bowl rimmed by sandstone on our way back to the truck. While Stillman poked his way through the brush to investigate a cluster of oak trees growing from the base of an outcrop, I proceeded up the slope across the grassy bowl. I suddenly felt as if I had wandered into the focus point of a parabola. It was intensely hot. It had to be well over 100 degrees.

I looked about searching for a flat patch of ground in full shade, but saw little. I needed to get into the shadows and lie down to let my heart beat slow and my body temperature fall or at least stop rising. I wasn’t in trouble, but I needed to escape the punishing rays of the sun and get off my feet.

A small alcove in the bedrock  across the bowl cast a sliver of shadow over a rocky and uncomfortably sloped floor. It wouldn’t do. Too much energy required to reach it, too much body heat generated, and too little shade on a piece of stony ground hard to relax on for its angle and roughness.

I turned and settled for a sloping patch of ground under a scrub oak. It offered little respite, but was my best option. I was unsure where Stillman went until I heard a few branches breaking down in the oak-shaded wash that drains the bowl during those infrequent and scant winter rain showers.

Lion Canyon hike Sierra Madre CuyamaWe found a trail along the creek just above Lower Lion Spring which served its purpose for a brief spell before we parted ways with it.”Wanna go check the spring?” Stillman asked. “I do, but I don’t,” I answered in the withering heat. “Yeah, me too.”

We reached the top of the grassy bowl and, a few yards beyond, seeing a shadow cast by a vertical rock face, we plopped down for a short rest. We were not sure how far we were from the truck or how easy or how hard it was going to be to get to it.

The brush for the last bit of distance had been thin enough to easily wind our way through, but I feared that as we crested the ridge in front of us in order to drop back into the canyon where we parked, that we would find a wall of dense chaparral covering the westward facing slope.

But the slope was nearly bare enabling us to quickly tromp down the loose hillside and into the dry creek, where after we reached the truck easily within a few minutes to complete a meandering loop surveying a section of lower Lion Canyon.

heaving slab David Stillman Sespe Brush Ninjas

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5 Responses to Lower Lion Canyon, Sierra Madre Mountains

  1. richard woolsey says:

    Jack, it seems a good share of your outtings end up with an interesting discovery of one sort or another. Other than satisfying your curiosity, did this trip yield any nuggets?

  2. Dude, was a solar sacrifice. Thought my cells were getting bleached. -DS

  3. Nico says:

    Enjoyed your take on the events. Thanks for sharing. That area holds my interest each time I walk/ride by it or see photos from others visiting the area.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      I’d like to get up into that dense looking oak forest in the headwaters of the creek, right at the base of the main outcrop at the top of the canyon. You know, the area you can see from the Sierra Madre Road just east of Montgomery.

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